Editorial: Mapping a course for opportunity

Published: 1/19/2020 6:01:23 AM
Modified: 1/19/2020 6:00:24 AM

Some maps display terrain, some weather, some stars. The map retired Federal Reserve Bank of Boston economist Jeffrey Fuhrer displayed during a talk at a Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce meeting earlier this month depicts economic gravity.

It’s the mysterious force that holds down the future earnings of poor children in some neighborhoods while similarly poor children in others climb the income ladder and in time join the middle class.

The map was created using Census data that was organized and analyzed to create what’s called the Opportunity Atlas. The atlas shows that huge disparities can be found in social mobility, the ability to move from one economic class to another.

Many factors, most of all where a person was born, their parents’ expectations and the color of their skin greatly affect social mobility. What doesn’t, at least not so much, Fuhrer told the audience, is hard work. Working hard, even extremely hard, at several jobs is not enough to succeed if those jobs are poorly paid.

One thing, easier said than done, can increase upward mobility for poor children living in neighborhoods where social mobility is low – moving, even to a low-income neighborhood a few blocks away where the opportunity to move up in life is higher.

The Opportunity Atlas shows that children who moved from a low-opportunity neighborhood to a higher one earned, at age 30 or 35, several thousands of dollars per year more, enough to amount to a $200,000 difference in income over a lifetime.

The local map Fuhrer displayed was shocking. It showed that a white male child born to a lower-income family in far West Concord had a median household income of $27,000 at age 30 while a child born in the same economic circumstances in East Concord had nearly double the income at $53,000.

Here’s the link to the map: opportunityatlas.org. Be sure to check that the settings at top right show “low, white and male.” Then note, when the “male” child setting is changed to female, how the figures change. The $24,000 in northwest Concord becomes $26,000 while the $53,000 in East Concord drops to $42,000. More mysteries in need of exploration.

Many people and organizations are seeking ways to increase upward mobility in America, which has fallen behind rates in Canada, Scandinavia and Europe. The Gates Foundation in 2015 alone committed $160 million to the task.

Two basic methods are being explored. Increase, through housing vouchers and the like, the ability of low-income families to move to higher opportunity places, or improve social mobility in neighborhoods and communities where it’s low.

Increasing the ability of every Concord resident to rise above their station is in everyone’s interest. Given the state’s shortage of funding and housing, particularly the near absence of affordable housing, relocation isn’t the answer.

Taking steps to increase social mobility is doable. The city did just that, we believe, when it created a second community center on the Heights along with a mini-branch library. City officials and councilors, nonprofits like the Boys and Girls Clubs, 4-H and Scouts, mentoring groups and philanthropic organizations should consult the Opportunity Atlas when directing their resources.

It’s possible that the economic gravity depicted on the map can be overcome. We won’t know unless we try.

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